No One on Either Side Is Fighting for the People of Jerusalem

Forty-eight years after ostensibly being reunified, Jerusalem remains divided into three cities — Zionist-Jewish, Arab-Palestinian and Jewish ultra-Orthodox.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Border police check Palestinian's IDCredit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer

Atef didn’t send his two sons to school this week. He’s lucky to live in one of the more peaceful streets of Palestinian East Jerusalem, in Abu Tor, but close to the old border. One son studies in primary school in Beit Safafa, the elder one in a Shoafat high school.

“Once they leave home, I can’t prevent them from joining other boys and throwing stones,” he says. “I told them that it’s all the politicians’ fault, ours as well as the Israelis’. But when they travel through the city and see the difference between the neighborhoods, it’s hard to argue there’s any sort of equality in Jerusalem.”

He continues to drive throughout the city, avoiding stone-throwers who may attack him because the car has the signs of an Israeli company he works with, and fuming at Jewish customers, who upon discovering he’s an Arab driver, slam the door and wait for another cab.

Hold on, why am I quoting a taxi driver, the oldest cliché of a columnist writing about a foreign city, when I’m writing about my own hometown? Simply because the sad reality is that Jerusalem isn’t one city and there are only three groups who regularly see and interact with all of the cities of Jerusalem — police officers, journalists and cabbies. The rest seldom stray from their own city, and when they do, it’s either as Jews going to pray at the Western Wall along well-secured corridors, or the small number of Palestinians with cash to spend in the cinemas and shopping malls on the Jewish side. At times of tension they stay away, fearful of lynch mobs roaming to avenge the last stabbing attack. If they have to show up for work, in restaurants and market stalls, they keep to side streets and often arrive early and remain behind long after their shifts are over, returning home when the coast is clear.

Forty-eight years after ostensibly being reunified, Jerusalem remains divided into three cities — Zionist-Jewish, Arab-Palestinian and Jewish ultra-Orthodox, each struggling within its confines and competing for resources and respect. Last month, before the new year started, it seemed for a moment that the old tensions between the Zionist and the Haredi cities might reemerge, as the new multiplex Yes Planet began screening movies seven days a week, “desecrating” the holy Shabbat. In the end there was just one weekend of sporadic protests and a bit of stone-throwing and that was it. A far cry from the mass Haredi demonstrations that paralyzed Jerusalem in the 1980s and ‘90s.

What happened to make the Haredim so complacent? A number of things but above all, over the last two decades, under mayors Olmert, Lupolianski and Barkat, they finally became part of the city’s administration. That may have not pleased other communities fighting for budgets, buildings and planning permits, but at least the Haredim now have a stake, and conflicts once fought on the streets now play out on the sixth floor of City Hall.

Even if on the Israeli side there were true openness to allowing the Palestinian side of the city into the municipal debate, there are major obstacles. For the Palestinians, participating in local elections for city hall representatives is tantamount to acknowledging and capitulating to Israeli occupation. However, when Palestinian leaders and their putative supporters in the Arab world and international community talk of the demand for an “independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” none of them seem to have given any thought to how the residents of this capital will live their dailyh lives in a city that is also the capital of another country.

Mayor Nir Barkat and other city officials are quick to brandish numbers of schools built, parks planned and hundreds of millions invested in infrastructure in the east. But all one has to do is to drive a hundred meters across the divide into any of the Palestinian neighborhoods to see the vast difference in the quality of the roads, the lack of green spaces and the irregularity of garbage collection. The disparity in the quality of life couldn’t be more blatant. As Haaretz’s Sayed Kashua wrote in his column two weeks ago, the Al-Aqsa compound is just about the only decent open space where Palestinian kids in Jerusalem can have a play date.

In a rare feature in the foreign press, the Financial Times’ John Reed wrote recently how the political and planning quagmire has fostered neglect and ruin of ancient buildings in the Old City, where Palestinian families huddle in cramped quarters, unable to legally build extensions or renovate. The conflict so often obscures the fact that those living in Jerusalem have the same concerns and problems as other urban dwellers, only so much more exacerbated. And in turn these frustrations will further feed the conflict as bored children playing outside Al-Aqsa realize they have nowhere else to go and might as well gain some street cred by throwing stones at soldiers.

The religious battle over whether or not Jews should be allowed to exercise their right to visit the site that to many of them is the holiest on earth, and whether there is any basis to the fears of the Palestinians that this is only a cover for the eventual removal of Al-Aqsa, spurs the violence. Politicians on both sides have scored points, provoked tensions and made it into a war of competing nationalist narratives. But if and when some semblance of relative calm is restored, the city will still not be at peace with itself.

Maybe it’s too much to expect that one of the cities in the world with the highest per-capita number of foreign journalists posted to it, each one of them with at least some vested interest in reporting on mayhem and chaos on their patch, can expect to be treated sometimes just as a town like any other, whose citizens have ordinary residential needs. Its history and present mean that Jerusalem will never be just-another-town, but for it to have a more stable future, political and religious leaders and even the media must, at least part of the time, treat it as such. Addressing the ordinary daily problems its residents face could be part of the solution to its very special problems.

I’ve written enough pieces in recent days and years over whether the latest cycle of conflict is, and why it isn’t, the third Intifada and I admit, beyond my professional judgment on the question, there is a part of me that urgently wants to be an intifada-denier. I remember too well what the two previous ones did to Jerusalem. The first intifada ended the idyll that this was one city. I don’t mean the right-wing fantasy that the old border could be expunged from memory and that the Palestinians and rest of the world would simply accept that all of Jerusalem is Israel’s indivisible capital. I mean simply the liberty of a curious boy and teenager to walk alone across the entire city and explore. Jerusalem until December 1987 had no no-go areas, at least as a footloose 14-year old I wasn’t aware of any. I didn’t have to remove my kippa or stop speaking Hebrew in order not to stand out.

For Palestinians in Jerusalem, though they were occasionally harassed by police, it was likewise a much larger and open city. It all ended then. Even those who continued to visit both sides were somehow marked down as either belonging, or not, to any specific neighborhood. For most it was simple — you stuck to your own side of town.

The second Intifada began with Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, but quickly spread to the western side of Jerusalem, with suicide bombings in buses, cafes and shopping centers. Fatalistically we continued shopping, drinking coffee and using public transport throughout, yet in the bombings’ wake remained a hardier but much more suspicious, hate-filled Jerusalem. Not that racism and fundamentalism were ever foreign to the city, but it has become the overwhelming norm, on all its sides. Jew on Arab, and Arab on Jew. In the streets, the malls, the sports grounds (with the glorious exception of Hapoel teams), vicious and frequently murderous sectarianism reigns. The politicians vie for Temple Mount or Al-Aqsa, but few of them even live in the city and none have thought of how it can be put together once again as a place where people can simply live side by side.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders swear in the name of Jerusalem and are prepared to fight for it until the last drop of the other side’s blood. They have all forsaken our city.

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